|Dungeon Master Guides
Author: Weston Saunders
First off, let me say what a special honor it is to be invited to share my young experiences with you on the art of DM’ing. When Keith asked me to provide a synopsis of my endeavor to run a mass combat scenario a few months back I don’t think he expected it to take this long to finish. However, like a keg of homemade beer left out on the sun deck for the better part of a hot summer, this should get downright beastly.
What is DM’ing anyway? Ask 100 different people and you very well could get 100 varied answers. Some will tell you it is the ability to spin a well planned tale that has a good linear feel with a firm start and end. Another might say it is all homework and memorization, rules are king. The world builder might tell you that backgrounds of epic proportions are an absolute must, populating the entire galaxy. Well, I have now been at the helm for one year and what I am about to share is answer #101. My top three rules I have learned through trial and error for what I believe to be a successful game.
My first and foremost rule is making sure everyone is having fun. It’s a simple rule and may seem blatantly obvious, but it can be overlooked and God only knows, very complicated. In my group we play D&D set in a Forgotten Realms homebrew campaign. I have six players all at various levels of gaming experience. On one end of the spectrum there are some who are green as grass, still learning the ropes. On the other end I have a Veteran Grand Master who can almost remember when the game was first released in the little white booklets, the rest fall somewhere in between. Keeping such a crowd in harmony isn’t always easy. Some prefer to run in with swords blazing, kill everything in sight and grab whatever is left of value. Others want the sheer satisfaction of a good role playing night, lots of discussion and conversation with NPC’s, regardless of any fights. Others want puzzles to analyze and strategize about then analyze some more. I always try to have something satisfying for each player’s appetite. It doesn’t always happen, but it is my first intention when I sit down to plan for our next session. Your job is to entertain the group. In the end, all that really matters is if everyone at the table is having a good time.
My second rule is just as important as the first. The world you build serves the game. I’m going to repeat that… the world you build serves the game. Some DM’s mistakenly come to believe it is the other way around. They work night after night spending untold hours creating their master pieces. They get emotionally attached, rightfully so, to what they have worked so hard to bring to life. There is nothing wrong with this, however, if during the middle of it all the players for some reason decide they are no longer interested
and try to exit stage left, the DM may attempt to railroad them back into
what he has planned in his notes*. This is a horrendous error on the part of the DM and beheads what I believe to be the true spirit of the game, which is choice.
Most of us who play D&D have also enjoyed a good MMORPG at some point in time. There have been some really nice games produced over the years; UO, EQ, Final Fantasy, etc. World of Warcraft seems to be the current needle to stick yourself with. However, none of them will ever compare to D&D or any other pen and paper RPG for the simple reason mentioned above, choice. In D&D you are not restricted to what the programmers and designers of the game had in mind for you when they built it. In the D20 system you are not hobbled. Limitless boundaries and choice are what ultimately make this game a permanent resident at the top of the proverbial gaming mountain.
In my campaign there is a clear understanding between me and my players. If at any point they are unhappy with what is happening in the game world, they can drop everything and head off in a new direction of their choosing**. This could result in much of my work for their current setting was for not and gets wasted. However, I would rather take this approach than pierce all my players noses with a bull ring and lead them around my world. Besides, I have found some of it can be creatively recycled back into the game without anyone ever being the wiser. Remember, none of what you have built actually becomes part of the game unless it happens at the table on game night. Until then it is simply a possibility that should always take a back seat to good creative spontaneity. If you want to be a novelist, go write a book. However, if you want to DM, structure your world using choice as the glue that holds it all together.
My third and last rule is part of what makes the second simple to implement. My current game world is never ending. Overall, there truly is not a set start or end to any of it. The settings my players find themselves in usually are smaller than many campaigns and larger than some adventures. Think of them as mini episodes. They usually take 6-8 sessions to complete and I refer to them simply as chapters, as even they do not have a predefined ending or length. Once the party has had enough of a certain circumstance and decides to move on, then the chapter is closed and a new one begins. This method hedges against the game from becoming stale. It forces me to keep my sphere of influence in check and always allows the winds of change to blow through the game at the party’s command.
This seemingly helter skelter method forces you, as the DM, to stay focused on the near future and not get too far ahead of yourself in your preparations. However, this does not mean there cannot be overlying themes to the game that span several chapters. A truly great villain doesn’t have to be restricted to a single chapter. He certainly could raise his ugly head in one later on against the players under completely different circumstances than the last place they encountered him.
I have taken the time to make simple skeletal structures of adventure that may come into play. These are very basic ideas that have not been fleshed out and only come into effect ala carte style when the players run into a proper setting. That is when I take the time to start filling in the details.
This way the players still get a sense of accomplishment with the completion of each chapter as they would with the ending of an adventure or campaign even though everything seems to melt into the next ongoing saga.
To wrap this all up in a little bundle of joy, I really don’t think there is a right or wrong way to DM as long as everyone is on the same page and enjoying the game. Sure, there is no substitute for hard work and fine quality, but if you want to run a game that uses rules found in Advanced D&D 2nd Edition with something out of Star Wars, with a little bit of Mary Poppins for good measure, go ahead. You’ll have the privilege of owning answer #102.
So there you have it, in all its muddled glory. If any of this stuck with you, good luck, you’re going need it.
Hey! Wasn’t this article supposed to be about Mass Combat? Well, now you know my secret rule for being a good DM, a severe case of ADHD for which there is no cure.
* This only applies if the party is acting as one in their decision. If you have one or two individuals that arbitrarily decide to leave the group you will have a dilemma. Stay true to your course of action for the majority of the group and let the Fates play with the deserters.
** Again, this only applies to the group as a whole.